My first reaction to this year’s Oscar nominations was that it was a sane and sober list, where the right films were recognized and where tokenism had largely been dispensed with. There were a couple of surprises: I had thought that Past Lives might have featured more heavily, but generally speaking, it was a robust and intellectually satisfactory assortment. But I had, of course, not fully reckoned with Barbie.
The most commercially successful film of last year has been losing ground at awards ceremonies, being supplanted by Oppenheimer and Poor Things, but the fact that Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie were not nominated, respectively, in the Best Director and Lead Actress categories (although, faintly surprisingly, America Ferrera joined Ryan Gosling in the nominations) has led to considerable controversy. Gosling commented that, “To say that I’m disappointed that they are not nominated in their respective categories would be an understatement,” and others soon weighed in, culminating in none other than Hillary Clinton saying on Instagram that, “While it can sting to win the box office but not take home the gold, your millions of fans love you. You’re both so much more than Kenough.”
It would have undeniably been a popular, as well as populist, move to nominate Gerwig and Robbie in the two most visible categories. (Gerwig is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay alongside her co-writer and partner Noah Baumbach, and Robbie is recognized as the film’s producer, but the chances of its winning Best Picture are slim, at best.) Yet it would also not have reflected the film’s strengths and weaknesses. Robbie is well cast as Barbie, but her intentionally blank and two-dimensional performance, which undoubtedly shows considerable technical skill, is considerably less distinctive than, say, Emma Stone’s multi-faceted work in Poor Things or Lily Gladstone’s magisterial performance in Killers of the Flower Moon. And does Gerwig’s perkily anonymous direction deserve to be nominated over that of innovators such as Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan or Jonathan Glazer? Few would suggest so.
Therefore, we face the usual challenge and criticisms that the Oscars have been saddled with for years. After the #OscarsSoWhite humiliation of 2016, in which all twenty acting nominations went to white actors, the Academy has bent over backwards to incorporate diversity at every level; it is little coincidence that Mahershala Ali has won two Oscars since that date, or that Michelle Yeoh triumphed over Cate Blanchett last year. The latter may have given a career-best performance as a morally conflicted conductor in Tàr, but Yeoh’s award enabled the Academy to say that she was the first Asian winner of the award for Best Actress for Everything Everywhere All At Once, and thereby made history. Every year, there is the same discussion: should the Oscar go to the best picture and performances of the year, or those who are the most apparently deserving from a social justice and progressiveness perspective?
The Oscars are a secret ballot, so every member is free to cast a vote as he or she wishes. Sometimes, this produces unwelcome and surprising results. Honoring Anthony Hopkins in 2021 for his performance in The Father, over what would essentially have been a tribute award to the late Chadwick Boseman for his work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, led to disappointment in many quarters. Not least because presenting the award at the end of the ceremony suggested that it would be a cathartic farewell to a much-loved star (and, far from coincidentally, the lead of the mega-grossing Black Panther film), rather than a justified second Oscar for a great British actor.
Yet the wisdom, or otherwise, of snubbing Barbie — which is a shoo-in for Best Song, but otherwise, in a strong year, may leave more or less empty-handed — is a reminder that it is an impossibility to please all of the people all of the time. Those of us who are not so fanatically attached to Gerwig and Robbie’s pop-feminism picture as their defenders have been may shrug and hope for the right film to win at this year’s ceremony, but controversy and the Academy Awards seem to go together like Barbie and Ken. This particular union shows few signs of being torn apart.